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When I Grow Up by Jonathan V. Post

Radiator clanking and hissing steam like a dragon, icicles inside the cracked bedroom window again, cars vrooming and coughing trying to wake up their engines, Mom and Dad clattering dishes in the kitchen and talking, talking, always talking and I never understand what they're talking about. "The Right Reverend Wintercott," Mom's saying, and I wonder whether the guy was right once in some argument so important that they never forget his victory, or maybe he's right all the time, but if that's true, then why don't they make him President? Egg smell. Coffee smell. Brooklyn dock noise outside, clank and thud of huge impossible machinery. I'm out of bed like a racehorse out of the gate, bare feet across the icy linoleum, grab sox underpants shirt pants from on top of the radiator where Mom put them so I won't freeze before I'm dressed. Wake up little brother with a overhand pillow shot, bingo! Or maybe the guy always turns to the right when he's driving a car, which would seem to get him hopelessly lost. "That you? You help your brother dress?" "Yes, Mom." Bacon sizzle, sproing of toast launched from the toaster like a space capsule, as I pass the kitchen on the way to the bathroom. Blobs of Dad's shaving cream in the sink like clouds. Is that what the weatherman means by "partly cloudy?" Little bits of clouds in the sky, instead of dirty blankets across the roaring city? Faucet creaks and shrieks, goes bump bump, Dad's complained about the plumbing and the cracked window but "rent control" for some reason stops anything from getting fixed. Water cold, stings fingers like jellyfish bite, quickly rub dry on towel. Satisfying handprint on furry yellow cloth. Dad appears, manly shaving lotion smell, ship on the bottle, leather odor from belt at the level of my nose, wool pants smell, voice deep. A deep voice is a dark voice. "What are you doing, getting the towels all dirty like that? Jeez, am I raising animals or what?" "But Dad, my hands are all clean, just like you want." He sighs, always says I'm so smart, but acts as if I'm stupid. Shame. "Look, son, the idea is to rub your hands with soapy water. The soap helps get the dirt off. Then you rinse all the dirt and soap down the drain. The towel is only to get the water off your hands. Not the dirt, get it?" Big smile. Another mystery explained! "Oh, yeah, I get it Dad. Just nobody ever told me before, I thought the towel was supposed to get dirty." He gives me a squeeze as I go by, towards the kitchen. His hands are huge, like the paws of a friendly polar bear. Mom wearing the neat Chinese robe with the twisty dragons in gold thread on ocean blue, that Dad got her in Chinatown that time, a spatula in hand, pressing bacon between two layers of paper towels, the most beautiful lady in the world. The pan is spluttering, refrigerator grumbling, sink sloshing, ceiling creaking with footsteps from the apartment above, a place as unknowable as the mountain tops of the Himalayas. The radio is on now, with that almost-about-the-space-program commercial I love so much: "Who was the first to conquer space? It's in-con-travertible that the first to conquer living space is the Castro Covertible. It saves you space with fine design and saves you money every time. It's tops in the convertible line, Castro convertible!" Sheer poetry. But weren't the Russians the first to conquer space? Dad waking me up to tell me about Sputnik, baffled when I burst into tears. "But why?" Waved at the picture books about rockets and space travel by Willy Ley with illustrations by Chesley Bonestell. "I thought you loved outer space, planets, all that stuff?" Through my tears managing to squeak "but I wanted to do it first." His laughter. Laughter of other grownups in the living room. Always laughing at whatever I say, and then patting me on the head and calling me sweet, precocious. Face red with embarassment. When I grow up, I'll never make little boys ashamed about their ideas or their vocabulary. Mom sliding pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon on my plate. Little brother clattering around in the bathroom now. Whistle far out across the harbor of some ocean liner bound for distant ports, icebergs, pirates, confetti, enchantment. But the Russians have something to do with Castro, funny hat, curly beard, smoking a cigar. So maybe Castro did have something to do with conquering space. Cuba is red. Russia is red. China is red. That's what they say. Maybe the Russians have red beards, not like Castro, but like Vikings? Little brother climbs into his chair, begins gulping down cheerios like there's no tomorrow. I'm shoveling in the eggs, toast with Welch's grape jelly, bacon, like the engineer tossing coal in an old-fashioned locomotive engine. "Don't eat so fast," says Mom. "It'll give you gas." That's odd. Gas is what Dad gets in the car, what the guy in the uniform puts in with a thick black hose and funny nozzle while he wipes the windows and asks if we want to check the oil. How can eating food fast make gas? If someone lights a match too close to me, will I explode? Does that have something to do with olive oil, salad oil, the man saying check your oil? Mom is refilling the salt shaker. The big cylinder of salt has a picture of a little girl with an umbrella carelessly letting the salt spill on the sidewalk. "When it rains, it pours." Of course. Or is that another puzzle? Maybe where they get the salt, whenever it rains, it really rains hard. "The Late Joe Saperstein," my Dad is saying. Boy, a guy must have to be late all the time for them to call him that. Or maybe he was late to something really important, and they never let him live it down. Late to his own wedding, I think I heard someone say once. Or was it late to his own funeral? Or maybe it's one of those things like Junior and Senior, or The Elder and the Younger in history books. "The Late Joe Saperstein and his son, the Early Joe Saperstein." Beats me. He strides out of the kitchen, steam on the inside of the icy windowpane, ready to go to work, wonder what kind of work I'll do when I grow up. Train engineer. Fireman. Cowboy. President. Astronaut. Yeah, definitely an astronaut. Mars, the red planet. Does that mean the Russians will get there first? "Don't forget to ask your boss about that raise," says Mom, sweetly, stepping on the little lever that makes the lid of the garbage can go up like the seat of the toilet. "Inflation is really cutting into the budget." Inflation, but isn't that what ballons do? How can a balloon cut? A ballon knife? Maybe a knife cutting a balloon, but that would just go pop! and leave a scrap of brightly colored rubber, slightly dusty on one side. "Jeez, the boss," says Dad, already at the front door. "What does that old bastard know about raising a family? He's getting pretty long in the tooth. Love yah, Honey." Slam. The grinding rumble of the elevator coming up to take Dad away. Long in the tooth? What, could Dad work for a vampire? A wolfman? Me and little brother play Dracula and Wolfman outside, until it starts to snow, and then cowboys and indians, until he loses one of his mittens in the middle of shooting me from behind a Studebaker, can't find it anywhere, slipped right out of the little clip at the end of his coat sleeve. He starts whimpering about how cold his hand is. What a baby. Lunch. Downstairs to the Mara family, never sure how many kids they have, never sure if there all there at once, some joke my Dad makes about Catholics that Mom tells him to shut up about, really nice people though, put honey with little bits of wax still in it on my toast when they serve a snack. Tastes like crayons. Melt some crayons on the radiator. Rivulets of red, orange, sky blue, burnt sienna whatever that is, yellow-green, silver down the ribs of the wheezing radiator. Mrs. Mara really upset, I'm not sure why, but never yells at any of the kids or slaps them, so I get off easy. Nice people. More important, they have a television. Sure wish Mom and Dad will buy us a television for Christmas, but they made such strange faces the last time I asked. Better shut up about it, don't what to mess up the deal. Back upstairs, play, look at space books, milk and cookies, build cities out of wooden blocks, pile pillows and blankets over the table and couch to make a tent, I'm the Lone Ranger and little brother is Tonto, I'm the spaceship captain and we run across the craters of the Moon and the red sands of Mars and skid around the rings of Saturn and put some ketchup on the tablecloth to make the great red spot of Jupiter, take the metal top off the table and hit it with a block to make a wonderful gong noise while we sing along with the commercial on the radio, "Northwest Orient -- Bonnnnggg! -- Airlines," and the day goes on and on forever. Mom says that when I grow up, the days and nights won't seem so long. That they will whisk by like leaves off a tree in the Fall, or like the pages of a calendar in the movies when a lot of time goes by between two scenes. Grandad says so too, that people are born and grow up and marry in the blink of an eye, it seems, and you can't hardly remember what happened yesterday but things from back in the 1800's seem as fresh as if they were right there in front of your eyes. "The 1800's," I ask, "say, Grandad, does that mean you fought in the Civil War?" They laugh. Darn it, they always laugh, even though I know they really love me. Dad's not home from work, for some reason I can't uncover, but Grandad and Grandma are here. Mom's Mom and Dad. They laugh all through dinner, though I can't see the point to any of the jokes, if it is even jokes they're laughing at anyway. Wash up. Pyjamas with cartoon moons and rockets. Little brother has baby pyjamas with feet on them, but I'm a big boy, so my feet get real cold on the linoleum on the way to bed. Mom kisses me and little brother goodnight, then goes away. The snow muffles the sounds of the Brooklyn night, the deep distant hoot of ships in the harbor, out beyond the Statue of Liberty. Cool blankets, heavy and comforting press down against me through the smooth clean-smelling sheets. Already beginning to get nice and warm. Sleepy. Satin border to the blankets, like Mommy's silk blouse against my cheek. They're still talking in the other room. Talking, talking, all the time, long after I will fall asleep. What in the world is there to talk about so much? Christmas carol on the radio. "Slee-eep in heavenly peace." Or is it "Slee-eep in heavenly peas?" Round green peas get nice and soft when I squish them up with my fork, smooth and sweet on the tongue. Maybe angels sleep in big bowls of mashed up peas, as soft as clouds? No, that would get their wings all green. Remember learning the alphabet, an eternity ago, before I could even reach the faucet. Thought "LMNOP" was a kind of pea, an elemeno pea. They laughed at that, too. I can still hear the grownups talking all the way down the hall, in the kitchen. Haven't been laughing for quite a while. "mumble mumble what can I do if he demands the goddamn divorce?" "Nobody gets a divorce, scandalous, hell of a way to get a trip to Mexico. What about the kids? Mumble, mumble, broken home? Child support?" "Mumble, grumble, but you still haven't told him about the cancer. What kind of tumor did the doctor say, and what if the radiation makes you lose your hair? Yeah, yeah, I'm sure he'd stand by you, at least for the duration of the treatment, but just look what you're up against." Goddamn, divorce, cancer. Three words I know are taboo from the faces people make when anyone says them. Like the words the big kids said in the playground. Fart. Faggot. Surely those are only two different pronunciations of the same bad word. There can't possibly be so many nasty things in the world that there could be two that start and end with the same sound? Oh, the words, words, words that grownups are always saying, as if a little boy wasn't entitled to know what was going on. The wind is shooshing outside, rattling the TV antennas on the roofs, one of them clicking, clicking. Like the clock in the belly of the crocodile that bit off Captain Hook's hand. Scary crocodile, long in the tooth, maybe clambering scaly legs across the roofs to get me. No, nothing can get me in the bed when the covers are pulled up over me. Not even when the lights are out. Think about angels. Think about astronauts. Someday I will be able to walk on the Moon in a spacesuit, like the pictures in my books. When I grow up. That's what really matters. Never mind the constant mystery of grownup code, right reverend, rent control, Castro, red Russians, gas, check your oil, when it rains it pours, late, inflation, long in the tooth, goddamn, divorce, cancer. "Slee-eep in heavenly peace." Sometimes I feel so safe and happy, tucked into bed, listening to family discussions down the hall as I drift off to dreams. But sometimes I wonder if the secret code of grownups is not just a stupid bunch of words, but something calculating and deliberate. A vast conspiracy designed to hide terrible dangers, too awful for the ears of little kids. What's that phrase that Mom and Dad are always saying when I ask the questions I need to ask to figure out what's going on? Oh, yeah. What you don't know can't hurt you. Boy, I sure hope so.
-- The End --
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Copyright 1996 by Emerald City Publishing.
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